By Michael Lanza
Are you planning to thru-hike the John Muir Trail? “America’s Most Beautiful Trail” should be on every serious backpacker’s tick list. After hiking it in a blazing (and slightly crazy) seven days, I became convinced that—while that was quite hard—the traditional itinerary of spreading the roughly 221 miles out over about three weeks has a serious flaw: With limited food-resupply options, you’ll carry a monster pack that may not only make you sore and uncomfortable, it could cause injuries that cut short your trip.
As I write in my blog story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” thousands of miles of backpacking over more than three decades—including about 10 years as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine, and even longer running this blog—have taught me that the single best step I can take to make all trips more enjoyable is simple: lightening my pack weight.
In this article, I lay out a smart, complete, and proven ultralight strategy for thru-hiking the JMT in 10 to 11 days—and why you’d want to do it.
The John Muir Trail—definitely one of America’s 10 best backpacking trips—is ideal for going ultralight because of its generally dry summers, well-constructed footpath, and moderate grades. Backpackers who arrive with their legs in trail shape can knock off 20 to 22 miles a day—spending about 10 hours a day on the trail (including breaks) and averaging 2.5 mph, a reasonable pace for someone who’s fit and carrying a light pack.
Please share your thoughts on my tips below, or your own tricks, in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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Season A JMT thru-hike can be done from early summer through September. But the best time for an ultralight thru-hike is mid-August to mid-September, when—usually—the mosquitoes have abated and rain is rare (allowing you to use a tarp instead of a tent), the high passes are snow-free, and mornings are cool.
The Itinerary Fastpacking the JMT isn’t just for the lunatic fringe—ultralight hiking was born here. Our group found seven days doable but extremely hard. More reasonable is 10 to 11 days, because fit hikers capable of averaging 20 to 22 miles a day can, with early-morning starts, still take a break in shade during the worst afternoon heat—and critically, not carry more than five days of food. Here’s how:
• Hike north to south—from Yosemite Valley to Whitney Portal—to gradually acclimate to the highest elevations.
• Hike in the cool morning and evening hours and take a break during the hottest time of afternoon.
• Start early to knock off most of your day’s mileage by early afternoon. For example, by starting at 7 a.m. and averaging 2.5 mph when walking, you can cover 15 miles by 2 p.m. if you’re walking a cumulative six out of those seven hours.
• By going ultralight and not cooking, you’ll find that packing up camp takes just minutes. See more tips on backpacking only with food that doesn’t require cooking in my article “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” which requires a paid subscription to read in full. (If you don’t have a subscription, you can purchase that one article by clicking here.)
• Plan fewer miles on days when your pack is heaviest, and more miles when you’re traveling lightest.
• Hiking southbound, the hardest and hottest climbs are to Mather Pass, Glen Pass, Forester Pass, and Trail Crest on Mount Whitney. Try to do these in the morning.
Permit Get a permit for the entire JMT from the park or forest where you plan to start, either Yosemite National Park or the Inyo National Forest (see below). JMT permits are in great demand for dates in July, August, and September.
To hike the JMT southbound, apply for a permit from Yosemite National Park 24 weeks (168 or 169 days) in advance of the date you’d like to begin—for example, apply on March 4 or 5 to start hiking Aug. 20. Increase your chances by applying for a range of start dates in Yosemite.
Permits for hiking northbound, starting at Whitney Portal, are reserved through a lottery system at recreation.gov; apply online between Feb. 1 and March 15. Find more info at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/jmtfaq.htm.
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Minimize Pack Weight
A critical tip: Keep your base pack weight—which includes only gear and clothing weight (which remains constant), not food and water weight (which fluctuates throughout a trip)—low enough that you can hike at a strong pace. A base pack weight of 15 pounds is not hard to accomplish without compromising comfort or safety; many thru-hikers get it significantly lower than that.
See my article “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” which requires a paid subscription to read in full. (If you don’t have a subscription, you can purchase that one article by clicking here.)
And see all of my reviews of ultralight backpacking gear.
Follow This Resupply Plan
• From Yosemite Valley, carry only light hydration packs for the 22 miles to Tuolumne Meadows. Have your backpacking gear and food waiting there. (Convince a friend to meet you there with your group’s gear and food.) Eat a big meal in the Tuolumne café.
• At Red’s Meadow (redsmeadow.com), a short hike off the JMT, resupply for the next 50 trail miles either by having someone meet you there, or for a fee, mailing or delivering a package in advance. Eat a big meal at the Mule House Café.
• Resupply a final time at Muir Trail Ranch (muirtrailranch.com/backpacker), about a mile off the JMT near the trail’s midpoint. Ship non-perishable food weeks in advance; a fee is charged.
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Not up for 20-mile days?
It’s not for everyone, of course. Many hikers allot three weeks, a pace of about 10 miles a day. Maybe the smartest strategy for you would be something in between—say, 15 days averaging 14.7 miles per day. Experiment with backpacking longer days and traveling light on shorter trips before your JMT thru-hike.
Still, traditional backpackers can draw benefits from adopting strategies employed by fastpackers—including going north to south on the JMT. Besides giving you time to acclimate to the higher elevations of the southern Sierra, it gives you two resupply opportunities (Tuolumne Meadows and Red’s Meadow) to keep your pack lighter while building up your trail legs. And it gives you half the trip—prior to reaching the last resupply opp, Muir Trail Ranch—to gauge your food needs and daily mileage capabilities.
By that time, you may find you’re walking farther every day than you anticipated and possibly eating (slightly) less than planned. Both realizations are common among people doing their first long trail. Backpackers are as likely to overestimate food as underestimate it.
Plus, except for the high passes, the JMT is not, step for step, as difficult as hiking in other parts of the country. Give serious thought to food supply and daily mileage, because leaving Muir Trail Ranch with 10 or 11 days worth of food will add about 20 pounds to your pack as you head for the JMT’s highest passes.
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You might even plan to hike shorter days for the trail’s northern half, as you’re getting stronger as well as to linger in places, but by the time you reach Muir Trail Ranch, be ready for longer days in order to reduce your pack’s food weight for the southern half of the JMT.
And that, really, is the whole point. Carrying too much weight on your back only makes a trip more difficult—and can make it miserable. You spend too much time thinking about when you can take a break from carrying your pack instead of thinking about where you are. That’s not why you’re out there.
Discard any misguided notion that you’ll “miss too much” by hiking bigger days—you’re still walking, after all, and only incrementally faster than you would walk with a heavier pack. You’re just walking for more hours each day—and more comfortably.
Let’s face it: The real reason you’d hike slower with a heavier pack is that it’s crushing weight is slowing you down—not because walking at that pace somehow gives you a higher-quality experience.
See my Custom Trip Planning page for details on how I can help make your JMT hike exponentially better by giving you a personalized, customized trip-planning consult.
And see more advice about planning a JMT thru-hike in my story about our seven-day thru-hike, which has more photos and a video, plus tips on planning it.
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.
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